By Jean Cole
Editor's note: This story is the first in a series of stories about the 2001 death of Cecil Birge in Limestone County and the capital murder case and sentencing that followed. The background in this story is based on News Courier coverage of Kathy Birge's 2003 trial by former reporter Rebekah Davis.
When Cecil Birge died at his home in eastern Limestone County in 2001, authorities initially believed the 54-year-old man had suffered a fatal heart attack.
On May 5 of that year, Limestone County Coroner Mike West found Cecil on the floor of the Dove Drive home he shared with his wife, Kathy. He ruled the death natural, in part, because Kathy had said her husband complained of chest pain and shortness of breath in the days before his death. Kathy had also told West she did not believe her husband was taking any medications and that he had refused to see a doctor about his heart problems.
By 2001, the Birges had been together since 1998 but married only five months. Cecil was working at Chrysler and the couple also ran a diet clinic together called Madison Med-Slim. Upon Cecil's death, the grieving widow collected $108,000 in life insurance and deferred pay from his employer.
But soon after, witnesses would come forward and investigators would unearth information that would make suspect the death of Cecil Birge.
A witness told authorities that on the day before Cecil died, Kathy changed his will. Two days before Cecil died, Kathy changed the beneficiary of her husband's deferred pay account from his daughter, Michelle Swift, to herself. Three days before Cecil died, Kathy prearranged her husband’s funeral and cremation.
Early on, Cecil's daughter Michelle, of Anderson, Ind., conveyed to authorities her suspicions about her father's death. She contested her father's last will and testament. And, when Kathy resisted an autopsy, Swift obtained a court order preventing her from having the body cremated. Michelle also submitted a different version of her father’s will.
With evidence mounting, Cecil’s body was exhumed from where it had been laid to rest in Indiana 20 days earlier, and an autopsy and toxicology tests were underway.
Happy or homicidal?
Although Kathy had claimed the marriage was a happy one, investigators discovered entries in her appointment book indicating the marriage was on the rocks and Cecil had asked her to move out.
When toxicology reports arrived, they showed Cecil's death was anything but natural. He had died of an overdose of eight prescription drugs, including lethal levels of barbiturates, codeine and the muscle relaxant Soma.
By September 2001, then-District Attorney Kristi Valls had Birge charged with capital murder for killing her husband and committing forgery to collect $51,500 in life insurance and $57,173 in deferred pay proceeds — a total of $108,673.
As the probe into the death continued, a friend of Kathy's would drop a bomb that could be her undoing.
See Tuesday's edition of The News Courier for the second part of this series; the conclusion is in Thursday's News Courier.